David Brooks. Picture: Ian McGowan
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A hesitant radical in the age of Trump: David Brooks and the search for moderation

The New York Times columnist rejects Trumpism – but understands what has enabled it.

David Brooks is often called the in-house conservative at the liberal New York Times but his columns are much more interesting than that reductive label would suggest. Unlike many Republicans, he is not an anti-government Randian. He rejects Trumpism but understands what has enabled it. In recent years, his probing twice-weekly columns have become more preoccupied with ethical, philosophical and theological questions.

“It’s a matter of conviction that public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised,” he told me when we met for coffee one recent morning in London. “That we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.”

In his 2015 book The Road to Character, which is about humility and moral courage, Brooks, 56, writes of how the “marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in every day decisions”. The competition to succeed becomes all-consuming.

So, what has gone wrong with capitalism?

“If I had to reduce it to one phrase, it would be a crisis of ‘social solidarity’,” he says. “Just a breakdown in social fabric, a rise in loneliness, a rise in isolation, a lot of people feeling their dignity’s been assaulted; they’re invisible, they’re not part of the project.”

Donald Trump’s supporters have a generally realistic view of his qualities as a human being but, Brooks says, “they figured he’s my shot at change”. When asked about Trump, his rule is to say that he is the wrong answer to the right question. “We have to address the fragmentation of society. The suicide rate in the US for white men, life expectancy is dropping not rising, opioids are everywhere, so those are symptoms of the larger isolation.”

The previous evening Brooks had been the principal guest at a Legatum Institute dinner, to which I was invited but could not attend. In 2016, I’d tried without luck to speak to him when I was making a programme for BBC Radio 4’s Analysis about the changing behaviour of young adults who, data suggested, were the most socially responsible generation since the 1960s. Brooks had written that we were entering a period of social repair and this idea was the starting point for my programme. So it was good finally to meet him.

Like many notable American conservatives, Brooks started out on the left. “My parents were scholars of Victorian history and house-swapped with Margaret Drabble back in the 1970s. We lived here [in London] and we had the New Statesman at home and all through my childhood.”

He was a socialist through high school and college; he was assigned Edmund Burke in his freshman year and loathed what he read. “But then when I became a police reporter in Chicago covering crime and social decay, I came to understand Burke’s belief in epistemological modesty: the world is just super complicated, we have to be careful how we plan. And so I became more Burkean… and took a wandering through American conservatism.”

Brooks has made serious mistakes as a commentator – one of which was robustly supporting the Iraq War, the kind of grand, far-reaching “neoconservative” project to which, one would have thought, as an anti-utopian sceptic he would have been opposed. “Well this is the great irony, of course,” he says now. “So I wrote a column arguing with Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, and I said what would they make of this? And they said they would not like this, they would be very sceptical. And then at the end of the column I wrote two paragraphs about why I thought they were wrong. I wish I could take those two paragraphs back!”

American politics is even more divided and ideologically polarised than here in the UK. Brooks values moderation. “You know I like the phrase ‘hesitant radicalism’.”

And he is a meliorist. “I believe in incremental change but constant change. To be a Burkean, in America these days, is to be a moderate, which is what I think I’ve become. It’s not to be a populist right-winger, or a Reaganite-Thatcherite type.”

He believes politics, in essence, is a competition between partial truths. “Being a moderate does not mean picking something mushy in the middle, but picking out the strong policies at either end, because politics is essentially about balance, getting the balance right.”

One of Brooks’s intellectual heroes – as well as one of Barack Obama’s – is the theologian-philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. “Nothing which is true,” Niebuhr wrote, in a passage quoted in The Road to Character, “or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.”

Can we really be saved by faith? “You know, it’s a challenge to me,” says Brooks, who self-identifies as being “religiously bisexual” (he is Jewish and profoundly influenced by Christianity). “Faith teaches you that human beings have infinite dignity but also are greatly broken. And that’s a nice balance to keep in mind, a wise anthropology. It’s a source of moral wisdom that has been lost, whether you subscribe to faith or not.”

Moral wisdom: this is precisely what Donald Trump lacks in this age of upheaval. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist